Two-Panel Hinged Altarpiece, Travelling Icons.

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Barberini Diptych (c.500-550)
Louvre, Paris. An exquisite
example of ivory carving.



What is a Diptych?
Famous Diptychs

The Wilton Diptych (1395-99)
By unknown artists.
National Gallery, London.

Melun Diptych by Jean Fouquet
The Melun Diptych (1450-55)
Left-hand Panel.
By Jean Fouquet.
LH panel: Koninklijk Museum, Antwerp;
RH Panel: Gemaldegalerie, Berlin.

What is a Diptych?

In fine art, the term "diptych" - whose name derives from the Greek words di (two) + ptyche (fold) - commonly describes a pair of tablets/panels made of wood (sometimes covered in wax) or more rarely ivory, which are hinged together to open like a book. A type of devotional Christian art, which was occasionally made into an altarpiece, diptychs were a popular form of medieval painting and maintained this popularity during the Renaissance. When it came to use as an altarpiece, however, the two-panel format was not as popular as the larger three-panel format (triptych), or the multi-panel format (polyptych).

Wax diptychs were originally used as writing tablets for secular purposes (example: consular diptychs). Notes or drawings could be made in the wax, by a metal stylus, and could be later smoothed over and reused. Later, diptychs were used in early Christian art as personal items, and also to record living and deceased members of the local church congregation. As personal devotion items, diptychs became widespread during the era of Byzantine art during which they were known as travelling icons. See: Christian Art (Byzantine Era) (c.400-1200). In a way, when used for personal devotional purposes, diptychs resemble smaller, static versions of Books of Hours, like the Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (1413), created in the International Gothic style by the Limbourg Brothers at the French court in Burgundy.

Their use spread to Italy during the 13th century, and they were a regular feature of Italian Renaissance art. They were also widely used for religious paintings during the Northern Renaissance in Flanders (c.1400-1580), among Flemish painters like Jan van Eyck (1390-1441), Rogier van der Weyden (1400-64), Hans Memling (c.1433-94) and Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482). Typical subjects for this personal form of Biblical art, included portraits of the Holy Family and scenes from the Bible, as well as secular portraiture. A common format involved a right-hand panel depicting a Madonna and Child, with a left-hand panel showing a portrait of the owner in prayer, next to his portrait saint. Diptychs are occasionally produced today by twentieth century painters for works consisting of two paintings that are not physically joined, but are displayed side-by-side as a pair.


Famous Diptychs

Barberini Diptych (c.500-550 CE) Louvre Museum, Paris.
By unknown artist

Annunciation and Visitation of Mary (1396, Fine Arts Museum, Dijon)
By Melchior Broederlam.

Wilton Diptych (1399) National Gallery, London.
By unknown artist

Werl Altarpiece (Diptych) (1438) Prado Museum, Spain.
By Robert Campin (1375-1444)

Crucifixion and Last Judgement (1420-25) Metropolitan Museum, NYC.
by Jan van Eyck (1390-1441)

Virgin and Child Standing in a Niche (1430) Kunsthistorisches Museum.
By Roger van der Weyden (1400-64)

Melun Diptych (1450-55) Koninklijk Museum; Gemaldegalerie, SMPK, Berlin.
By Jean Fouquet (1420-81)

Portraits of Federico da Montefeltro and Batista Sforza (1465) Uffizi.
By Piero della Francesca (1412-1492)

Countess' Ordeal by Fire Before Emperor Otto III (1473) Brussels.
By Dieric (Dirk) Bouts (c.1415-75)

Deposition (1480) Staatliche Museen, Berlin.
By Hugo van der Goes (1440–1482)

Portrait of Benedetto di Tommaso Portinari (1487) Uffizi, Florence.
Left-hand half of the diptych.
By Hans Memling (c.1433-94)

Four Apostles (1526) Alte Pinakothek, Munich.
By Albrecht Durer (1471-1528)

Portrait of Luther and Wife (1529) Uffizi, Florence.
By Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553)

The Third of May 1808 (1814) Prado, Madrid.
By Goya (1746-1828)

Marilyn Diptych (1962) Tate Modern, London.
By Andy Warhol (1928-87)

The Last Thing I Said To You Is Don't Leave Me Here (2000) Saatchi Gall.
By Tracey Emin (b.1963)

• For more terms, see: Painting Glossary.
• For more about devotional artworks, see: Homepage.

Art Glossary of Terms
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